Greg Palast’s “Best Democracy Money Can Buy”: Billionaires and ballot bandits

One of the American Left’s knights in shining armor, Greg Palast, is back with a new film. The trench coat, fedora-wearing Palast is to investigative reporting what Raymond Chandler’s private eye, Philip Marlowe, is to detective novels. In The Best Democracy Money Can Buy Palast wears out the shoe leather, pounding far-flung proverbial pavements, from the Arctic Circle to way down South to America’s heartland in Kansas to the Sunshine State to posh East Coast enclaves in Manhattan and the Hamptons to the West Coast (where Palast and Marlowe were both born) to the Congo, Venezuela and beyond. Our man is hot on the trail of the film’s subtitled Billionaires and Ballot Bandits.

The multifaceted Best Democracy Money Can Buy covers lots of ground, but its central focus is an alleged conspiracy to nullify the votes of at least 1 million mostly minority people at the polls. This purported GOP plot is codenamed “Crosscheck” and as presented, it’s nothing less than a 21st-century high-tech version of nullification – the extreme legal theory that individual states have the right to invalidate federal laws a state deems “unconstitutional.” Best Democracy argues that Crosscheck is assaulting nothing less than voting rights, along with the historic 1965 Congressional act to ensure nonwhite citizens’ ability to cast their ballots. Palast condemns this scurrilous scheme as “lynching by laptop.”

According to press notes, this complex computerized vote stealing ploy “is controlled by a Trump henchman, Kris Kobach, Kansas Secretary of State, who claims his computer program has identified 7.2 million people in 29 states who may have voted twice in the same election – a felony crime. The catch? Most of these ‘suspects’ are minorities – in other words, mainly Democratic voters. Yet the lists and the evidence remain ‘confidential.'”

Palast deduces that Crosscheck is targeting minorities because the family names it targets across state lines are disproportionately those of nonwhites, who are more likely to vote for Democrats. For instance, Jackson is a common moniker for African Americans, while Park is widespread nomenclature for people of Korean ancestry, just as Garcia is for Hispanics and so on.

In the Sunflower State, Palast manages to confront Crosscheck’s purported mastermind, Kobach, despite the fact that the Kansan official had declined repeated interview requests. Using hidden camera technology Palast tackles the Crosschecker at an ice cream social where Greg is eventually given the old heave-ho. (The intrepid investigator has been tossed out of more joints than most journalists have ever even been invited into.)

During the almost two-hour film, Palast also embarks on epic manhunts for so-called “vulture capitalists,” who buy up bad debts for pennies on the dollar, then deploy strong-arm tactics to force Third World debtor nations to pay up – even if it means forking over funds earmarked for lifesaving needs – or else.

According to the journalistic gumshoe, “I’d been hunting Paul ‘The Vulture’ Singer for BBC TV from the Andes to the Congo to Detroit and Dayton. Now the number one donor to GOP Senate candidates, The Vulture made his billions by what the U.S. Treasury called ‘extortion.'”

In another vignette, a secret tape recording of a man identified as Billy Koch exposes the crimes of the other Koch brothers. And in yet another sequence, Palast encounters Etok, a feisty Inuit leader and whale hunter in Alaska. In Best Democracy Palast reworks and revisits the scenes of various crimes he’d previously disclosed in his books and documentaries, such as the theft of the 2000 presidential election and vote caging in 2004’s Kerry v. Bush donnybrook. What is the thread that connects all of these sins in the tapestry Palast weaves in his latest film?

Connecting the dots of his cinematic intersectionality, the shamus told me: “No one steals votes to steal elections, they steal votes for the money. Singer, JP [John Paulson, the foreclosure king, now Trump’s sugar-daddy and advisor on the economy] and the Kochs don’t want to be regulated, to be jailed or to be taxed. So they back candidates that will deliver their next billion.

“It was important for me not just to show vote theft, but to show you the guys who are funding the vote thieves, and their victims (Eskimos, Congolese, Delphi auto workers, foreclosed homeowners) – who, not coincidentally, are the folks whose votes they must steal.”

Expanding the boundaries of nonfiction film

To do so, the resourceful Palast uses poetic license, pioneering a new film form. As co-director of Best Democracy with David Ambrose, he doesn’t deploy behind the scenes techniques (it is an exposé, after all!). Palast revealed: “For ‘gun and run’ scenes we used equipment best for the situation. When I tried to jump Singer in New York the second time, Rick Rowley (Academy Award-nominated director/shooter with Jeremy Scahill for 2013’s Dirty Wars) used an iPhone 6! In undercover work, you have to keep it hidden.”

Palast imaginatively expands the boundaries of nonfiction film in numerous ways cinematic, inventive and witty, intended to keep a mass audience entertained, even as they are enlightened. A number of lefty celebrities enliven the (more or less) nonfiction film. In keeping with the private eye ambiance, Ice-T and Richard Belzer (a longtime conspiracy theorist) of TV’s Law & Order: Special Victims Unit make repeat appearances. So do Rosario Dawson, Willie Nelson, plus various notables, such as late Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez, voting rights champion Robert Fitrakis and disgraced capitalist Michael Milken, who is identified in the end credits as “Billionaire, convicted bank fraudster, jailbird, asshole.” According to press notes, “Graham Nash re-recorded his Crosby, Stills & Nash blockbuster hit ‘Chicago,’ re-writing the words to reference Ohio, the most crucial swing state in the coming election.”

Palast admitted, “I did steal The Big Short’s idea of using celebrities to explain complex stuff – I got Ed Asner to put on a Santa suit to narrate a cartoon with the REAL story of JP and financial collapse” and to also play a billionaire.

Best Democracy also makes use of special effects, such as green screen, for which Palast said, “we used top-of-the-line 4K cameras.”

Most notably, the film creatively incorporates animation by Emmy Award-winning artist Keith Tucker (Who Killed Roger Rabbit?). This enhances the film’s humorousness: From his public speaking to his books, Palast is known for his wit, which makes it easier to follow his complex work about rather dark subjects.

In addition, Palast interjects classic film clips from movies such as D.W. Griffith’s 1915 racist epic The Birth of a Nation. He includes a scene wherein a freed slave (probably a white actor in blackface) sneakily seeks to vote twice in a post-Civil War election. Palast brilliantly relates this to current Republicans blathering about voter fraud. Best Democracy debunks this notion as a smokescreen to cover up what it contends is the real vote rigging – ballot nullification via Operation Crosscheck.

What to make of Palast’s rather free form? Purists may not regard it as strictly a documentary, but it is certainly not a feature film. It is surely closer to being a nonfiction work, although not a docudrama per se. Palast, along with some other freewheeling filmmakers, is creating something of a hybrid genre. Significantly, another exemplar of this trend in free-form documentary filmmaking, Josh Fox – Oscar-nominated for 2010’s Gasland and director of the new How to Let Go of the World and Love All the Things Climate Can’t Change – is scheduled to do Q&As with Palast at 5:10 and 8:10 pm when Best Democracy premieres Sept. 23 in Manhattan’s Cinépolis Chelsea cinemas.

In our political system of checks and balances, Palast represents the balance to Crosscheck and those who would steal our votes in 2016’s presidential race and beyond. Best Democracy is arguably the best pro-Civil Rights film made since 2014’s Selma. Armed with a camera, Palast proves – to paraphrase Chairman Mao – that “political power grows out of the barrel of a lens.”

The Best Democracy Money Can Buy: A Tale of Billionaires & Ballot Bandits theatrically debuts Sept. 23 at Cinépolis Chelsea, 260 West 23rd Street, New York, NY 10011 (yes, very near where the recent bombing took place). See: www.cinepolisusa.com/chelsea.aspx. The film theatrically opens in Los Angeles Sept. 30. For more info about screenings, see: www.gregpalast.com/.

See here for the Trailer.


CONTRIBUTOR

Ed Rampell
Ed Rampell

Film historian and critic Ed Rampell was named after CBS broadcaster Edward R. Murrow because of his TV exposes of Sen. Joe McCarthy. Rampell majored in cinema at New York's Hunter College. After graduating, he lived in Tahiti, Samoa, Hawaii, and Micronesia, where he reported on the nuclear-free and independent Pacific movement for "20/20," Reuters, AP, Radio Australia, Newsweek, etc. He went on to co-write "The Finger" column for New Times L.A. and has written for many other publications, including Variety, Mother Jones, The Nation, Islands, L.A. Times, L.A. Daily News, Written By, The Progressive, The Guardian, The Financial Times, and AlterNet.

Rampell appears in the 2005 Australian documentary "Hula Girls, Imagining Paradise." He co-authored two books on Pacific Island politics, as well as two film histories: "Made In Paradise, Hollywood's Films of Hawaii and the South Seas" and "Pearl Harbor in the Movies." Rampell is the author of "Progressive Hollywood, A People's Film History of the United States." He is a co-founder of the James Agee Cinema Circle and one of L.A.'s most prolific film/theatre/opera reviewers.

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